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2008 | 21 | 135-152
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GRAPHIC MOTIFS ON FABRICS IN THE LATE- AND POST-BYZANTINE ICONS - A SIGN, A SYMBOL OR A DECORATION? (Motywy graficzne na tkaninach w ikonach pozno- i pobizantynskich - znak, symbol, dekoracja?)

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The question posed in the title refers to the recurring motifs - usually geometric figures as well as fleurs-de-lis and triskelions on the garments of Jesus, Mary and some saints in the late- and post-Byzantine icons of the 15th and 16th century. These motifs can be observed mainly in frescoes and icons, often produced in very distant centres: from Crete to the remotest north of Rus'. They appear chiefly on the vestments worn by Jesus and the martyrs, as well as on the Mandylion or, in the Nativity scenes, on the sheet upon which Mary reclines during her confinement. The essential question concerns the function and meaning - decorative or symbolic - of these motifs. It seems that their application can hardly be a matter of accident, since for instance the triskelion is a motif frequent in prehistoric and ancient art, commonly interpreted as a solar symbol. Its version was the early-Christian 'crux gammata', known from the oldest icons and catacomb paintings. The geometric figures, in turn, such as the circle, square or equilateral triangle, originate from the Antiquity, in which they carry meanings derived from mathematical ratios which govern their shape and give them the character of 'perfect figures'; hence they could serve as attributes of things perfect. It is evident that the garments of Christ and martyrs, the robes of prophets, Mary's confinement sheet, liturgical tablecloths or the sheet with the image of Christ are covered with a combination of ancient perfect figures - squares, triangles and circles - with the Christian perfect figure - the cross and its crux gammata variant referring to the ancient symbolism of rotational movement, together with the fleur-de-lis, commonly interpreted as the symbol of purity. This combination of motifs may, in effect, have served as the image of the universe , but may also have constituted a protective shield consisting of a set of signs referring to archetypes known through the archaeology of prehistoric cultures and later grafted on the Neo-Platonic ground, adapted in the very first centuries of Christianity, and brought back again at the close of the Middle Ages.
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  • Miroslaw P. Kruk, Uniwersytet Gdanski, Katedra Historii Sztuki, ul. Bielanska 5, 80-952 Gdansk, Poland
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